Friday, December 9, 2011

Cynicism versus Originality.

Belgian brewing's dependence on the U.S market continues to grow, for better or worse.

From Shanken News Daily, via Appellation Beer: Among the usual numbers of industrial beer flagging and craft beer surging, imports fell 0.6% over the past year but the fastest-growing source of imports was Belgium, with a whopping 28.9% increase in volume. (Mexico is still the largest beer exporter to the U.S., thanks to Corona and the power of the lime.)

It's not clear how much of that Belgian beer is artisanale and how much is, for example, Stella. But many small Belgian breweries already are dependent on exports to the U.S. to survive or succeed (about 60 percent of Belgian beer is for export, and a big chunk of that is bound for American shores). Inevitably, some brewers allow that fact to influence their recipes. Give the market what it wants, right? Or, rather, give the market what the importer tells the brewer that it wants. I won't name names, because most brewers would claim pride in their products, even if the idea were not wholly their own. Even if they are shamelessly pandering to American beer geeks.

Am I being too cynical? I don't think so. This is a story that has already played out in the wine world. Winemakers change what they bottle to satisfy a massive global market and the critics who guide it. As a result, there is not much real variety on the shelves and in the cellars.

Still, there are rogues -- in beer and wine and food -- who follow their own paths. The best brewers will continue to be the ones following their own consciences. These are the ones making exactly the sort of beer that they really want to drink themselves. Ultimately, that's the truest definition of craft or artisanal brewing, even if it's no guarantee of quality and hard to verify without reading their minds.

My theory, possibly naïve, is that those are the beers that drinkers really want anyway, once they learn about them. I refer to the original, the honest, that with personality, and that which says more about its home than its destination.


  1. It's not just happening in Belgium. Either all of the world is slowly experiencing an Americanization of their palates, or you are seeing similar brewing for the American market appearing in Denmark and from a few places in the UK.

    However, to give credence to the other side of the argument: here in Tokyo, we have several well-regarded bars where the selection is split pretty evenly between local product and USA product, predominantly from the west coast that leans heavily towards the big DIPAs and RISs American BAs seem to favor. Young Japanese men drink them. Older craft beer drinkers and women seem to prefer Belgians.

    Personally, I'm interested to see where the so-called "emerging markets" go. Beer drinking is increasing very rapidly in China and Brazil--even faster than the US. I know China is laying down tons of new fields of hops. What are they drinking? Are all those hops for the export market, or are they for perceived growth of the indigenous beer industry? Perhaps, they will save us from an impending homogenization of the beer market.

  2. A Gazetteer of the world, a book published in 1856 says that in Belgium "the number of breweries amount to 2800 and a large portion of their produce is exported". So it's nothing new that Belgian brewers rely heavily on the export market, so I'm wouldn't be surprised if those brewers back then also brewed the kind of stuff their clients wanted to drink.

    And I frankly don't think that there are enough (and I stress enough) drinkers who want to drink something "different". As I've said in my blog the other day, retailers know better than anyone what the market wants.

    Brewing is, and has always been, a business, for better or worse, those Belgian brewers are following the money. They aren't cynical, they just want to make a living.

    And I'm not sure about the analogy with wine, either. People seem to believe that wine is made only by small, independent producers, when in fact most of the best known, or at least, most widely distributed wine makers are owned by multinational corporations that are not very different in their business philosophy than those who own breweries. That (and the enormous influence of the likes of Robert Parker) is the cause of lack of variety.

  3. Anonymous: I'm not sure the word "homogenization" is fair in this case, since we have already seen a near-total homogenization of the beer market in the form of pale lager. Recent movements are back in the direction of diversity of style and flavor. But even in that small, more interesting sliver of the global beer market, brewers can be sadly derivative and lacking in originality. A Belgian brewer sees Americans drinking undrinkably hoppy beers so he makes one too, even though he has no taste for the stuff. If the beer is technically well-brewed there will be few complaints (some are just downright clumsy).

    My suggestion, put another way, is that brewers might consider embracing their local limitations and advantages, and especially their own personal tastes, to brew something that is their own. It will be easy to sell, and that is a surer path to success than imitation.

    (On the subject of imitation, I'm being very kind to leave American brewers out of it for now.)

    I'll say it even more succinctly: Assuming the product is sound, originality is good business. Just ask the folks in charge of marketing.

  4. Here in Italy I feel like the Italians are doing some very unique things that don't go after the American palate. The problem is that few are growing their own crops of hops and barley to be self sustained, therefore importing these crops is almost a necessity; driving up the cost of the product for export. Interesting to know that China is laying down their own fields. I am sure this is for export. Great article by the way!

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  6. Joe, I agree with most of what you say, but...
    "My suggestion, put another way, is that brewers might consider embracing their local limitations and advantages, and especially their own personal tastes, to brew something that is their own. It will be easy to sell, and that is a surer path to success than imitation."

    I think that brewers should definitely use their local advantages, but not let their local limitations stunt their ability to show us what THEY really like and really want to drink. When brewing beers for their own personal taste you can't expect a brewer to not want to use special ingredient X after he was bowled over by trying a few beers from Country Z, eventhough that is on the other side of the world. Any self-respecting brewer will take those influences and make them his own. I suppose its the non-self-respecting ones you have to watch out for.

    You did say "brewers might consider embracing their local limitations" so I guess that also means they could consider giving that train of thought the old one finger salute and order up those New Zealand hops and their pure strain Brettanomyces in order to brew their funked-up hoppy bourbon barrel Belgian stout aged on lingonberries eventhough they live in Costa Rica. Right?

    And how local is local? That lambic-esque brew from De Dochter Van De Korenaar you speak of... there ain't no Lambic like tradition in Baarle-Hertog. By American standards the Lambic-land is close by, but by Belgian standards its 4 days travel.

    Furthermore when speaking about Belgian breweries, they have always followed trends outside of Belgium.... but made them their own in most cases. Don't forget, Rodenbach learnt the trade in the UK, then came back and made it Belgian. The Russian Imperial Stout trade was practically taken away from the british by the Belgians (or so I have read a couple times... but sometimes what you read isn't true). Pilsner wasn't invented here but sure is brewed here.

  7. sorry... that lambic like brew was mentioned in your next post. I cheated and read ahead.